Room and board

Posted Aug. 22, 2010, at 6:23 p.m.

They were a fixture of small-town and big-city America a half-century ago — boarding houses and residential YMCAs and YWCAs. For a modest weekly fee, a young adult out of the family home for the first time, beginning his or her first job, could find a clean room and bed. Sure, the room might have been Spartan — no kitchen, no living room — but it would be a warm and safe place to return to each night. Many boarding houses also provided a home-cooked breakfast and dinner.

What happened to this key transitional housing, which seems to have faded away by the mid-1960s? The answer might keep a doctoral candidate in sociology or history busy, but more important is whether such institutions might again find a place in the American landscape.

These days, young adults often return home directly after college and may live with Mom and Dad until they can save enough cash to buy that first house. This arrangement may be unfair to the parents and could insulate the young adult from the valuable hard-earned lessons that come from struggling toward a better future. Affordable transitional housing would be a better option for such young adults. It also would help an adult recovering from addiction, building a life after a divorce or training for a new job to have an easier time of it with an affordable room to rent.

Instead, the choices for those in such circumstances often are staying with family and friends, living in a car or at a homeless shelter.

A dormitory-style boarding house, perhaps with a low-cost diner operated on the ground floor, might present a good business opportunity for the enterprising type. Or government might subsidize businesses that operate such boarding houses, just as it subsidizes elderly housing and low-income housing. That might be a hard sell in tight economic times, but the case can be made that such an investment could head off other social costs.

In fact, the case can be made that the government is investing disproportionately in the elderly and poor, to the detriment of working young adults.

The productivity of the nation’s young adults — say, the 21-30 age group — could be boosted by providing tax breaks for rental housing. The tax breaks could go to those leasing apartments or rooms, with a threshold established using rent payments as a percentage of taxable income. And tax breaks for those opening boarding houses also could spur an increase in the availability of housing options, thereby reducing demand and lowering prices.

A multistep path toward home ownership, supported by tax policy, might have helped avert the housing collapse that factored into the historically deep recession.

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